Chapter 10: On Government: A Call for More, not Less

When it comes to government’s role in the economy, Southerners don’t want small government. What they want is better government.

Our recent in-depth research across the South and Southern Midwest finds (somewhat surprisingly!) that famously negative views of government across the South mask a powerful, widespread desire for a MORE active government in creating a strong economy. 

What this means is that we—as progressive communicators—can and should double down on public power and public policy (that is, government). But we have to be thoughtful about HOW.

Read on for a more detailed explanation of the current cultural context and the strategies that allow us to reach beyond our already engaged base, and place public power and public policy at the center of our collective prosperity and well-being.

I.   The challenge: Negative views of government remain widespread 

Our five-state survey confirmed what most of us would suspect: the majority (57%) of Southerners and Southern Midwesterns surveyed—across demographics and ideological divides—have negative views about government’s impact on people’s lives.

Why? Our 300+ in-depth conversations with people across Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Kansas, and Arkansas explain some of the patterns of thinking behind the numbers:

  • Church over state: Most people in the region simply do not see a constructive role for government or policies, at least when it comes to our collective well-being. Collective action and collective responsibility are primarily associated with churches and the local community, not with civic or government institutions.

Source: Topos Partnership, Southern Mindshift, 5-state survey, May 25-29, 2023

  • “Handouts” and “bickering politicians:” When people do think about government, they often associate it with “freebies and handouts,” ideas that threaten the deeply ingrained cultural value of “hard work.” Or people associate government with “bickering politicians,” essentially the idea that government can never get anything done because people in power spend all their time arguing.
  • Concerns about the harms to business: Another significant challenge we explored in our last chapter (A People-Centered Economy is not Anti-Business) is that businesses (instead of workers) are currently at the center of many people’s thinking about how the economy works. Many people believe that if businesses are doing well, we all win; if they are struggling, all of us suffer. As such, people worry about how government intervention and regulation will impact businesses instead of the protection that guardrails offer/provide workers and their families.

II. The opening: Southerners want a more active state government in making the economy stronger

The widespread negative reaction to government’s role doesn’t mean people want to shrink government’s role in the economy. It’s the opposite. Southerners’ views of government in the economic context are driven by wanting government to do more, and to do better.

By a 3-to-1 margin, respondents agree with the statement: “The state government should take a more active role in making the economy stronger” (73%). Majorities across all demographic subgroups agree. Even among those who believe government has a “very negative impact,” 68%—or two out of three—want state government to take a more active role.

In Chapter 9 (A People-Centered Economy is not Anti-Business), we established that one path to getting people to accept a more active government is to focus on the bad behavior of employers/corporations and emphasize the legitimate role of the government in setting up rules and guardrails to regulate harmful business practices.

What this survey research tells us is that there is ALSO a very legitimate role for the government in creating a stronger economy. It’s a promising opening that requires us to be strategic in navigating the cultural traps of deservingness and the deeply entrenched value of hard work that underlie the negative views of government impacts laid out above.

III. The strategy: Connect the dots between our well-being, a robust economy, and an active role for government

A people-driven narrative:

  1. People drive the economy; businesses rely on us.
  2. Taking active steps to build up and include ALL people makes both moral and economic sense.
  3. Some businesses exploit their workers, neighbors, or consumers; so we need rules and guardrails.

The cluster of ideas in this recommended paradigm shift work together to allow us to sidestep the traps while we connect the dots for people between employer/corporate mistreatment of working people + the pro-worker policies we have in our toolkit to address that mistreatment (and build worker power) + the larger economic impacts that these policies have for all of us.

This story is grounded in ideas that feel like common sense, that work together synergistically and that help people understand the information around them in different, more constructive ways.

Here’s what this approach looks like in practice (with paid leave as an example):

*Remember that this approach is not about special language or words. It’s about a basic perspective shift that needs to be reinforced and communicated in many ways. 

1. People drive the economy; we need economy-boosting jobs, not economy-busting jobs.

“Giving opportunities to people will contribute to the economy. I feel it’s basic logic that helping your people will help you and your economy as well.” 

– 21-year-old mixed-race woman, Independent, Kansas

An important reason for the state to pass and implement pro-worker policies like paid sick days is because the economy and our prosperity is driven by people’s contributions. When employers treat workers poorly, or when we allow barriers that prevent people from reaching their potential, it impacts workers’ well-being and our collective ability to contribute. A good job is not just a good job because it helps an individual worker, but because it boosts local businesses, communities, and the economy as a whole. We can use this logic to build support for policies that many people otherwise might view as irrelevant to themselves.

Example language:

Paid sick days that allow workers to take care of themselves and their families aren’t just good for workers and their families, they are good for our communities and our economy. If people don’t lose pay when they take care of a sick child, for instance—or if they know taking time to care won’t cost them their job—they have more money to spend in the community, and more security about spending it. If we want to boost both families and the economy, we need to ensure that all workers have access to paid time off.

2. Center race and class in the story: Inclusive economics is smart economics

“We can have a stronger and more secure economy if we have more people contributing to it . . . Combating racism and sexism gives women and people of all races opportunities to be treated better in the workplace and to contribute more to the economy.”

– 31-year-old white Hispanic man, conservative, Kansas

When we start with the idea of the people-driven economy—that the activity and contributions of people are the source of prosperity and strong communities—then it follows that fighting racism, sexism and other forms of exclusion is not just the morally right thing to do but is the economically smart and sound thing to do.

This paradigm shift can help show how racism and sexism are not just problems for the people directly affected, but act as a drag on our overall collective well-being and prosperity. If it is government’s job to look after the economy and the common good, that means building up ALL communities.

The vast majority of respondents across the five states found the following statement convincing or very convincing:

Example language:

The more people we have contributing to our economy, the better off we all are. The more people who can reach their full potential, the more we benefit from the contributions everyone can make. We can improve our state and our economy by removing barriers from people taking part—like in history with the women’s movement and civil rights movement—and like we do today combating racism and sexism.

 3. Connect the dots to government’s role

“The government should make it where paid time off was something employers had to give their employees. This would help stabilize the economy and help it grow . . . Employees do need paid time off. They don’t owe their whole lives to that company . . . [and] people are more productive when they have a break.”

– 32-year-old white woman, conservative, Grovetown, Georgia

Many Southerners believe that policies like paid sick days should be a part of any worker’s earnings. In fact, many are shocked to learn that some employees have to make do without paid time off. But they’re not accustomed to thinking about government intervention as a solution.

We can remind people that some employers choose to make their profits by treating their workers poorly—exploiting their hard work—grinding down people and communities, and that the government actually has a role in reining in destructive behavior. We need rules and guardrails to regulate and stop the bad behaviors of businesses.

Example language:

We need to insist on rules to protect people from corporations that would take advantage of our hard work without fair pay or treatment. To build up their profits, corporations have kept wages stagnant, stopped offering pensions and job security, and lobbied in the state house for weaker worker protections. Stronger policies and programs mean that working at a job can lead to security and progress for everyone, not just the lucky few.

Essentially, we are laying the groundwork for a coherent, integrating economic narrative that puts public power and public policy (that is, government) at the center of our collective prosperity and well-being. With time and effort, a narrative like this can compete with the current low-regulation, low-tax, low-wage, “pro-business” economic narrative that many Southern leaders have been pushing for too long.